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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy

Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index

Spirits of America: Intoxication in Nineteenth-Century American Literature.

Warner, Nicholas O. (1997).
Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

ISBN: 0-8061-1873-3

Description: Hardcover, xiv + 290 pages.

Contents: Eight chapters, conclusion, chapter notes, references, index.

Excerpt(s): Romantic writers often celebrate wine for its pleasing qualities and poetic associations. But at times they reject literal wine as a paltry substitute for the truer wine of art, poetry, or intense spiritual experience. Addressing this issue in a notebook entry of 1808, Samuel Taylor Coleridge writes that humanity "before the Fall [was] possessed of the Heavenly Bacchus"; in our fallen world, however, only "the Bastard Bacchus [of artificial intoxication] comes to [our] Relief." The concept of a superior spiritual wine as opposed to an inferior earthly one appears vividly in Keats. The notion is jovially expressed in "Hence Burgundy, Claret and Port," and rapturously in "Ode to a Nightingale," where the longing for vinous intoxication gives way to yearnings of a more sublime nature:

Away! away! For I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards.

This bifurcation between physical and spiritual wine or intoxication appears not only in romanticism but also in a long religious and philosophical line that includes Increase Mather, Philo, and, ultimately, the Bible: "Be drunk, but not with wine; stagger, but not with strong drink," (Is 29:9); "be not drunk with wine . . . but be filled with the spirit" (Eph. 5:18). In practice, however, literal and spiritual intoxication can blur all too easily. The heavenly Bacchus and the bastard Bacchus, to use Coleridge's terms, are not always easily distinguishable. There is, to be sure, an undeniable difference between having a drink and having a mystical experience of expanded consciousness. But there is also an undeniable connection between them, reflecting the widespread sense of relation between literal intoxicant use and a more metaphorical, spiritual form of intoxication, as this book's opening epigraph from William James suggests. Thus the notion of "two wines" can lead to two quite different assessments of literal intoxicants; they can be denigrated as vulgar counterfeits of the true sublime or celebrated as humble yet nonetheless genuine avatars of intoxication on a higher plane. As we shall find, the divisions and intersections between spiritual and physical intoxication that are apparent in British romanticism reappear with subtle persistence in the work of the authors examined here. (pages 18-19)

At its worst—in the torpor of drunkenness, for instance—alcohol betrays the mind, and drinking becomes a pathetic travesty of more sublime expansions of the spirit. But because of their power to alter consciousness, wine and drinking can be apt symbols for such expansions and, in fact, take their place among Emerson's favorite, most frequently used metaphors for intellectual and spiritual transcendence.

The exact nature of this transcendence has been so well charted that, as Hyatt Waggoner observes, it is "too familiar to need further repetition". What is of more immediate concern here is the way that wine and its consumption become symbols for a kind of consciousness expansion that has nothing to do with alcohol, except that alcohol's effects on sense perception and mood, as well as its time-honored association with poets, make it a perfect image of the heightened imaginative condition that Emerson praises and seeks. (page 39)

The issue of literal intoxication's connection to spiritual "intoxication" has earned its share of controversy. R. C. Zaehner, for example, sneers at William James's famous passage on drunkenness as the great exciter of the "yes" function: "To the average frequenter of cocktail parties this may come as a revelation. That there is a grain of truth in it may be conceded, but to state that by drinking three or four gin-and-tonics the drinker becomes one with truth would surprise no one more than the drinker himself"; see Zaehner, Zen, Drugs and Mysticism. To begin with, of course, James never makes the silly claim Zaehner implicitly attributes to him. Moreover, Zaehner's comment misses the fact that observations about cultural patterns are not invalidated merely because participants in the culture may not acknowledge or even recognize those patterns. Rather than imply that cocktail drinkers are seeking Nirvana at the bottom of a gin and tonic glass (though some, undoubtedly, do), James is concerned with pointing out the deeply buried roots that "regular" drinking and the achievement of altered consciousness share.

In a statement that makes James appear tame by comparison, the contemporary Russian author and celebrated dissident, Andrei Sinyavsky, says vis-â-vis drinking: "Drunkenness is our [Russia's] national vice and moreover our idée fixe. It is not from poverty nor from sorrow that a Russian drinks but from an eternal inclination towards miracles and the unusual; he drinks, if you will, mystically striving to lead his soul out from earthly equilibrium and return it to its blessed incorporal condition," quoted in Boris M. Segal, The Drunken Society, 507-08. Specifically addressing Zaehner (in a context other than the James comment), I. M. Lewis writes that he has no "ambition to follow Zaehner or other ethnocentric writers in seeking to distinguish between 'higher' and 'lower', or 'more' or 'less' authentic forms of ecstatic experience." Similarly, Peter Furst counters Mircea Eliade's disparagement of intoxicant use for achieving ecstatic trances, observing that "it is difficult to distinguish phenomenologically between so-called spontaneous religious experiences ... and those that are pharmacologically induced". ... The point here is not to make the case for drug taking as a means of spiritual illumination but to demonstrate the seriousness and significance of the chemical-spiritual connection as a subject of study—its "thickness," to use Gilbert Ryle's concept that Clifford Geertz made famous in his Interpretation of Culture. (pages 234-235)

This compilation by Thomas B. Roberts & Paula Jo Hruby, © 1995-2003 CSP

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